The Chicago skyline is seen through hazy conditions as construction continues for the upcoming NASCAR Chicago Street Race on June 28, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — While the air quality in the city is improving, Chicagoans are in for a “build up” of pollution in the coming days with the NASCAR Street Race, Fourth of July festivities and holiday travel happening at once, a climate researcher said.

“Each of these events are going to produce similar and different kinds of pollution and it’s just going to continue to build up in Chicago,” said Anastasia Montgomery, a climate change researcher at Northwestern University.

Chicago’s air quality remained “unhealthy” Thursday due to smoke from Canadian wildfires but is expected to move to “moderate” over the weekend, according to AirNow, a federal air quality database.

By Friday, “it’s going to be very noticeable that there’s going to be much less smoke,” said AccuWeather meteorologist Jake Sodja.

As of 8 a.m., the air quality was deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups” by AirNow.

But Sodja and Montgomery both estimated “good” air quality won’t return until next week.

“Right now we’re dealing with atmospheric pollution,” Montgomery said. “There’s going to be a lot more traffic in the surrounding neighborhoods and highways, especially during this holiday weekend where people are trying to get out. To cap that all off, we’re going to have fireworks, grills, [and] additional holiday pollution related to the Fourth of July.”

The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates a record number of Americans — 50.7 million people — will travel more than 50 miles over the Fourth of July weekend. 

That includes an estimated 4.17 million traveling by airplane, more than the pre-pandemic record of 3.91 million travelers in 2019, according to the AAA.

This weekend’s NASCAR Street Race is expected to draw 100,000 people.

NASCAR race cars can be “50 to 100 times” more polluting than the average car, according to Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago. Still, pollution from the race alone doesn’t compare to that of cars traveling throughout the city on a typical day, according to Argonne National Laboratory experts.

Showers or thunderstorms are in the forecast for the weekend, according to the National Weather Service. Rain can help improve air quality by clearing out smoke particles in a process known as wet deposition, but it won’t be a quick fix, Montgomery said. 

“Rain is a good thing in that it can kind of like flush out all these particles that we are seeing, but then rain won’t be just the solution if the smoke from Canada continues to push into Chicago,” she said. 

While there hasn’t been substantial rainfall in the last week, “we’ve basically been baking in the same bunch of air for the past few days and that’s why this wildfire smoke just continues,” Montgomery said.  

With the Earth’s temperature continuing to rise, Sodja said it is hard to predict when Chicago will stop experiencing the smoke plumes.

“I don’t know what the answer to that might be because you can get more [fires] starting,” Sodja said.

Wildfires can happen at any point in the year, so whether Chicago is in the midst of freezing winter or scorching summer, “it doesn’t necessarily make the smoke itself or the threat any higher or lower,” Sodja said.

The Office of Emergency Management and Communications said in a statement the city doesn’t anticipate air quality to worsen this weekend to the point of canceling the NASCAR Street Race or Fourth of July events “but will evaluate as needed if smoke from the Canadian wildfires continues to move through.”

The city’s air quality issue brings to light the disparities in air pollution that have been well documented in Chicago and the health problems neighbors in certain parts of the city are more susceptible to. 

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office advises people who don’t have access to “properly ventilated and safe indoor conditions” to visit public libraries, senior centers, Park District facilities or the Chicago Cultural Center.

There are five community service centers citywide open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. A sixth center, Garfield Center, 10 S. Kedzie Ave., is open 24 hours. For more information, visit here.

Chicagoans are advised to avoid being outside and to keep outdoor activities short and wear a mask when the air quality is deemed unhealthy. You can check the air quality in your neighborhood here.

To receive public safety tips and alerts from OEMC, you can sign up here.

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